On Caeleb Dressel’s mind: Not gold medals, but a dark fantasy
NEW YORK -- Caeleb Dressel, fresh off a six-gold-medal effort at the world championships, sat down with OlympicTalk for a Q&A reflecting on his previous Olympic experience and looking forward to the 2020 Tokyo Games. Lightly edited for clarity ...
OlympicTalk: Everybody is talking about what happened at worlds, but let’s start with the Rio Olympics. You might have had the most pressure-packed debut swim in Olympic history, leading off the 4x100m freestyle final in Rio with a personal-best time. The vast majority of swimmers start with a preliminary heat. Did you feel the weight of that moment, given the recent history of that relay?
Dressel: No. It wasn’t until after I swam that somebody told me, geez, you did so well for it being such a spotlight event. I didn’t think anything of it until people started mentioning it. I was like, dang, I’m glad you all didn’t say anything before I stepped onto the block. But it was just another race for me. With the London Olympics, France out-touching us. And then the whole thing with Beijing, everyone knows what happened there. I guess there was a little bit of pressure that comes with it.
OlympicTalk: What was your favorite part of your first Olympic experience outside of the competition?
Dressel: We were in the athletes’ village, and I had a few other roommates. A lot of us, it was our first Olympics. Just being able to share those experiences away from the pool, messing around, playing games in the little living room we had.
OlympicTalk: Who were your roommates, and what games did you play?
Dressel: Blake Pieroni, Ryan Held, and, I think, Jack Conger and Townley Haas. We played Fun Run on the phone. It’s so outdated at this point. You literally press one button the whole game. I think we had some card games every now and then.
OlympicTalk: It’s funny that you say you didn’t realize the enormity of your first Olympic swim. Since now every other sentence people mention you is about seven or eight gold medals, records, etc. Do you wish you could go back to what it was like, at least in a pressure sense, three years ago?
Dressel: No, I wouldn’t want to change anything. If the spotlight wants to be on me, it’s totally fine. At the end of the day, it’s really just my goals, my dreams, what I feel like I’m capable of doing and shutting out anybody else who thinks different than that or wants to add onto that.
OlympicTalk: What are your goals and dreams, then? Apart from what everybody else is saying.
Dressel: Well, it’s not really about counting medals for me. It’s just about getting better every day. Not just in the water, but life in general. I know that’s such a broad thing, but it’s really just becoming a better person every day. Immersing myself in new knowledge through books, learning from swimming, putting stuff in my day-to-day life. It’s tough. I haven’t conquered my mind in any way, shape or form, but I feel like I am in a much better place now than three years ago.
OlympicTalk: You’ve mentioned specific books, from “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” that inspired your daily ice baths, to “Zen in the Martial Arts,” which you read before worlds. Anything else you’re reading?
Dressel: I just started one, “A Reaper Heretic.” It’s a dark fantasy. My friend from high school wrote the book, got it published and it’s on Amazon.
OlympicTalk: You said you read “Zen in the Martial Arts” three or four times.
Dressel: I read it in high school before junior worlds and in 2017 before world championships. I read it again before world championships in 2019. So I need to start keeping that a tradition. It’s crazy. I have every page pretty much highlighted. How I read my books is if I find something good, I’ll put the page number in the front of the book. The whole front of the book is like every page number. It’s very simple stuff. Most of these books, they are well-thought-out and very original ideas, but it’s very simple stuff you can apply to your day-to-day life. It goes into the history of it, and it’s really about the mindset.
OlympicTalk: Back to the topic of the moment. Do you want to expand your program in the next year, possibly get to eight Olympic events?
Dressel: I would not want to limit myself in any way, but I also don’t want to just sign up or try to do a bunch of different events and then just completely overdo it. Worlds is tricky, because one of the days I have a triple. I would have loved to be on the 800m free relay at worlds, but that’s two triple days back to back at night, and then I have the morning swims. You have to know your body in the sense that it is going to make you tired.
But for next year, the 200m free is something I would like to dabble with. I dabbled with it this year a little bit. I’m not sure. I’m not sure what I would want to add. I’ll stick to the basics. Me and [coach Gregg] Troy have a plan, a training regimen that we are confident is going to work if we do want to expand to different events.
OlympicTalk: Have you seen the Olympic schedule?
Dressel: No, I have not. Troy knows it like the back of his hand.
OlympicTalk: It looks more favorable than worlds. Whether or not you add the 200m free and the 4x200m free, you would only have one triple of all the finals sessions -- a 50m free semifinal, 100m butterfly final and mixed-gender relay.
OlympicTalk: It’s really just the finals that get you. I know you have to make it into a big-boy heat in the semis, but it just carries a little bit less with it. It sounds all right.
OlympicTalk: Does the magical eight Olympic gold medals mean anything to you?
Dressel: I’m not in this sport to beat out one guy. I know the comparisons are going to be made, but for me, it’s all from within what I feel like I am capable of doing. It’s not to beat one guy. I don’t know if that’s disappointing to a lot of people, but it’s not why I’m in it. I consider him a better, more talented swimmer than I am. I’m trying to take what skill set I have and really max that out.
I don’t enjoy the time during worlds. The meet is not fun itself. Having to step up on those blocks and racing is fun. Winning, yes, it’s very fun. But the focus it takes, the physical abuse you take just from the meet itself. When it’s after, yeah, I’m very proud of myself for doing it, kind of watching the year come together. But during the actual thing, the amount of focus, it’s really not that much fun. For me, it’s not counting medals.
OlympicTalk: We’ve talked to you before about the bandana and Ms. McCool, but you also kneel down and pray next to the block before races. Are you saying the same thing every time?
Dressel: It’s whatever is on my mind. It’s completely random. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to get up and race. I’m not asking to win or anything. God doesn’t play favorites like that. Just another opportunity to race, do what I love to do. Depending on how I feel, I’ll say, I know this is going to hurt really, really bad. So just ask for strength maybe those last 10 meters.
OlympicTalk: What was Troy’s post-mortem on worlds?
Dressel: This year was not an easy year. Every year is so different. I hit a bad rut just with my training. I was bad for, I want to say, two or three months. I hit a rut where I just wasn’t putting up good times. I get angry with myself when I’m not putting up good times. For me, that’s a decline of self-improvement. Which I know it’s not because you can’t be on every single day. But this year was really tough. With Troy, there was a lot of self-doubt even leading up to the meet because you’re not putting up times in practice. I’m supposed to be going crazy fast times. It can be very frustrating in this sport. Troy kept telling me, this is where the experience comes in. He’s seen it before. For me, I act like it’s a new thing every year, but I do drop down a little bit before ramping back up. He just kept calming me down.
To see it come together at the end, be able to share that with Troy. He’s so funny. He just thanks me. He goes, thanks for having me along. It’s like, hey, you realize this is why I’m working with you. I need you. I need you to be my coach. He was proud of me. There’s nothing better than hearing your coach say he’s proud of you. And Troy doesn’t hand out compliments all the time, so when he does say them, you know it’s something special.
I’ve watched my sister swim, and it sucks because you are just out of control of everything. So, for Troy to have to watch all of my races and not have any control of anything, it’s very nerve-racking. I think it’s worse to be a spectator than to actually be the one performing. Troy’s a tough one, but I know he gets nervous.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!